The editors of American Scholar have chosen “Ten Best Sentences” from literature, and readers have suggested many more. They threw in an eleventh for good measure. This lovely feature caught me in the middle of a new book project, “Art of X-ray Reading,” in which I take classic passages such as these and look beneath the surface of the text. If I can see the machinery working down there, I can reveal it to writers, who can then add to their toolboxes.
With respect and gratitude to American Scholar, I offer brief interpretations below on how and why these sentences work:
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
This sentence is near the end of the novel, a buildup to its more famous conclusion. It begins with something we can “see,” vanished trees. There is a quick tension between the natural order and the artificial one, a kind of exploitation of the land that is as much part of our cultural heritage as the Myth of the West and Manifest Destiny. “Vanished” is a great word. “The Great Gatsby” sounds like the name of a magician, and he at times vanishes from sight, especially after the narrator sees him for the first time gazing out at Daisy’s dock. What amazes me about this sentence is how abstract it is. Long sentences don’t usually hold together under the weight of abstractions, but this one sets a clear path to the most important phrase, planted firmly at the end, “his capacity for wonder.”
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
—James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”
This sentence also comes near the end of the novel, but is not the very end. It has the feel of an anthem, a secular credo, coming from Stephen Dedalus, who, in imitation of Joyce himself, feels the need to leave Ireland to find his true soul. The poet is a maker, of course, like a blacksmith, and the mythological character Dedalus is a craftsman who built the labyrinth and constructed a set of wings for his son Icarus. The wax in those wings melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun. He plunged into the sea to his death. This is where the magic of a single word comes into play: “forge.” For the narrator it means to strengthen metal in fire. But it also means to fake, to counterfeit, perhaps a gentle tug at Stephen’s hubris.
This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
—John Hersey, “Hiroshima”
Great writers fear not the long sentence, and here is proof. If a short sentence speaks a gospel truth, then a long one takes us on a kind of journey. This is best done when subject and verb come at the beginning, as in this example, with the subordinate elements branching to the right. There is room here for an inventory of Japanese cultural preferences, but the real target is that final phrase, an “atavistic urge to hide under leaves,” even in the shadow of the most destructive technology ever created, the atomic bomb.
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—Toni Morrison, “Sula”
I did not know this sentence, but I love it. It expresses a kind of synesthesia, a mixing of the senses, in which a sound can also be experienced as a shape. Add to this effect the alliteration of “loud” and “long,” and the concentric movement of sound in “circles and circles of sorrow,” and we have something truly memorable.
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
—Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”
Who could not admire a sentence with such a clear demarcation beginning, middle, and end? Thank you, commas. Only a single word – “neighbor” – has more than one syllable. Austen gives us 19 words that add up to 66 letters, an astonishing efficiency of fewer than four letters per word. But this math is invisible to the meaning. She begins by asking what at first seems like a metaphysical question: “for what do we live.” The social commentary that follows brings us crashing down to earth in a phrase, and carries us home with a delicious sense of revenge, a kind of sophisticated punch line.
It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
—Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
Didion wrote a New Yorker essay on Hemingway that included a brilliant close reading of the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. There is something suggestive of that passage here, a march of time constructed from the repetition of the smallest words: the, it, and. Then comes a wonderful dropping off, as in a steep waterfall, as meaning flows down a stream of optimism with phrases like “sense of high social purpose” and “spring of brave hopes and national promise,” only to fall off the edge and crash upon the boulders of “it was not.” Not once but twice.
Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.—Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms”
Donald Murray used to preach the 2-3-1 rule of emphasis. Place the least emphatic words in the middle. The second most important go at the beginning. The most important nails the meaning at the end. Hemingway offers a version of that here. A metaphor of flowing water is framed by two abstractions Anger and Obligation. That fact that the metaphor is drawn from the action of the narrative makes it more effective.
There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
—Charles Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby”
Older sentences feel more ornate. Long gone from our diction is the “euphuistic” style of long intricately balanced sentences that showed off the brilliance of the writer, but asked too much of the reader. But in Dickens the sentence as argument feels just right. In short, it says that poor men cannot hope for justice. It does so by an act of civic demythology, hitting the target again with the memorable final phrase “the furniture of their pockets.”
In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.
—Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
Again we see how a longer sentence can flow from the work done near the beginning: “he was like America itself.” Such a simile always evokes an instant question from the reader: “How was he like America itself?” (How hot is it, Johnny?) The answer combines description and allegory. He is a living microcosm of American strength and weakness. In an unusual turn, the most interesting element rests in the middle with “a roll of fat jiggling at his belly.”
There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.—Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
This sentence has the ring of familiarity to it, perhaps Nabokov’s riff on King Lear: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Lolita may have more “best sentences” than any work on this list, but I’m not sure this is one of them. I worry about any sentence that uses an adverb for a crutch. “Cruel” is not enough for Humbert Humbert. He must magnify the cruelty with a word – atrociously — that denotes wickedness and cruelty. It’s not the child’s fault she is adored and yet this makes her an atrocity. Now that I have thought it through, it sounds exactly like Humber’s self-delusions after all. Perfect.
Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
—Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”
We used to call this a “periodic” sentence, that is, one in which the main action occurs at the period. The Brits have a better name for that mark of punctuation: the full stop. Any word that comes right before it gets special attention. That effect is magnified by the boxcar alignment of those opening similes, along with the shift from things we can see to something more abstract – drama. Which never stopped there, of course. Until it did.